An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Henry Francis Lyte

Aug 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 10th August 2011

Henry Francis Lyte’s life is marked by sadness.  Born at Kelso in Scotland in 1793, he arrived in Ireland in 1798 when his father, a Royal Marines officer was posted to Sligo and the family came with him.  Sadly, the marriage broke up, and, having made arrangements for young Henry’s education at Portora Royal School, Captain Lyte left for Jersey, possibly taking one of his three sons with him.  Lyte’s mother moved to London with his other brother, and both soon died from illness.  At the age of nine, Henry Francis Lyte was alone in the world.

Dr Robert Burrowes, the headmaster of Portora, assumed responsibility for Lyte, paying for his education at Portora which was followed by his degree Trinity College, Dublin.  Lyte had planned to study medicine, but felt God calling him to ordination, so entered the divinity school and graduated in 1814.  A skilled writer, he won prizes for his poetry in College days.

He  was ordained in 1815 for the curacy of Taghmon in Co Wexford. During his days as a curate Lyte visited the Abraham Swanne, rector of the neighbouring parish of Killurin. Swanne had become critically ill and was dying and his spiritual conversations with Lyte had a profound impact upon the young curate, giving a new direction to his ministry and to his preaching.  In 1816, when Swanne died at the age of 54, Lyte looked after Swanne’s widow and children and took care of Killurin parish until a new rector arrived.  Henry Francis Lyte was still only 23 at the time; it must have seemed another sadness to add to those with which he had lived from childhood.

The strain of caring for the two parishes seems to have taken a heavy physical toll and he was diagnosed with serious lung problems and told he must take a break in warmer climes to recover and he travelled to France and Italy in the hope that warmer weather would improve the state of his lungs. His health rallied and he went to work in the parish of Marazion in Cornwall, where he met his wife Anne, a Methodist whose family were from Co Monaghan.  A legacy from her father, who died shortly after their marriage allowed  them to live comfortably, but also allowed Lye to repay his debts to Robert Burrowes.

From 1820-1822, the Lytes lived at sway in Hampshire. His life seemed, however, doomed to unhappiness. They were to be blessed with three daughters and two sons, but at Sway, their month old  baby girl died,  Lyte baptised her Anna Maria in memory of his mother.  Perhaps losing a child was a common enough occurrence in days when infant mortality was so high, but the little girl’s names suggest she meant a great deal to her father.

From 1822 to 1824, Lyte was vicar of Charleton, beside the River Dart in Devon, then in April 1824 he was appointed rector of the poor fishing village of Lower Brixham in south Devon.

Lyte’s faith inspired him to work hard in the community and the frail and sickly clergyman won the confidence and affection of many of the people of his parish.  A Sunday school, hundreds strong, was established, providing both secular and sacred education and Lyte devoted much time to writing, producing a metrical version of the psalms and a series of hymns, including ’Praise, my soul, the king of heaven’. Congregations grew so large that the church was extended.

However, as the years passed, Lyte’s asthma and bronchitis, slowly got the better of him and he spent increasing amounts of time in France each winter  in the hope of building up his strength.  In the spring of 1847, he returned to Brixham to be with his parishioners. By now he was very weak, his illness was very advanced and he sensed he hadn’t much time left.

His last Sunday in Brixham was September 4th 1847 and he was seriously ill. According to accounts of the day, despite protests from his family, he carried out his wish of preaching and celebrating Holy Communion at the morning service. He rested in the afternoon and in the evening went for a short walk before going to his study for a couple of hours. When he came out of his study to rejoin his family, he handed his sister the words of ‘Abide with me’, the hymn that was to become his most famous, together with a tune he had written for it. It seems that he had been working on the hymn for a couple of weeks, before completing it that Sunday evening. A few days later, he travelled to France, where he died on 20th November and was buried in the grounds of the English Church in Nice.

‘Abide with me’ seems Henry Francis Lyte’s commentary upon his own life. Deserted by his father, his mother and brother dying, his thirty year struggle with serious illness, the death of his baby daughter: the hymn is a prayer of a man who is reflecting on his life.  Had Lyte felt embittered, angry even, towards God, it might have been understandable, yet there is a quiet confidence, even in the midst of severely debilitating illness.  It is extraordinary how those who have suffered the greatest misfortune, the greatest hurt, sometimes have the greatest faith.  The profound faith of many Africans in the face of overwhelming suffering is something that can prompt only silent admiration.

Sometimes the hurt caused to us by other people can rankle more than the hurt that comes from illness or death.  Lyte felt he had been failed by those who had been his helpers. A devout, evangelical Christian, Lyte was deeply hurt when several of his Sunday School teachers and most members of his choir became involved in the Plymouth Brethren movement, that was sweeping through the country at the time, and left his church to join the local Brethren assembly. At a time when his health was failing and when the support and encouragement of his friends was something he would have greatly valued, Lyte feels he has been badly let down and turns to the Lord for encouragement and support:

‘When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.’

When singing those lines, how often do we ever think of our own hurts and resentments?  Do we ever think of leaving them with God?

A lady in Dublin used to say that when she was upset by things at the end of the day she would leave with them with God and then she would go to sleep because there was no point in both of them staying awake and worrying.

In 1847, Henry Francis Lyte looked at the world around and it prompted him to include in his final hymn the line ’change and decay in all around I see’.  It is not an expression of morbidity or pessimism, it’s a description of the world as he sees it, a world that included in 1847 Ireland beset by the horrors of the Great Hunger.  There is no-one else left to whom to turn than the one ‘who changest not’.

Lyte’s closing days are spent with a belief, a trust, a faith in Christ’s abiding presence; that the one who walked on the road to Emmaus on a Sunday evening walks with us now.  From the moment as a curate he sat at the bedside of the dying Abraham Swanne, he seems blessed with a faith that could endure whatever might befall him.  Such faith allows him to set aside all that was past, confident in the future to come.

Lyte asks for a vision of the Cross, in ’Abide with me’ because he knows that through it the darkness of the gloom has been dispelled. If God loves him enough to die for him on a cross, then there will be a place for him in heaven.  Death for Lyte is not nightfall, but daybreak; the shadow of death will disappear in the brilliant light of God’s presence.

In his poem ‘Declining Days’, he wrote:

But might I leave behind
Some blessing for my fellows, some fair trust
To guide, to cheer, to elevate my kind
When I am in the dust.
O Thou whose touch can lend
Life to the dead, Thy quick’ning grace supply,
And grant me, swanlike, my last breath to spend
In song that may not die!

If Henry Francis Lyte can prompt us to think of how we deal with hurt, then  he will have left a blessing for us.


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